How NOT to Write a Travel Article!
Last year I was privileged to be invited on a Press Trip to the Basilicata region.
By sheer coincidence I’d only read about it a few weeks before in a book by the wonderful Travel Writer HV Morton, so I was really looking forward to the trip.
There were four writers on the trip, plus Dale from the Basilicata Tourist Board, and Dora the Italian guide.
We had the use of a large minibus and a driver, we were put up in extremely top-quality hotels in Potenza and then Matera, we were entertained wonderfully everywhere we went, and fed lots of excellent local food and drinks. See my photos.
So we were all absolutely horrified to read this article. Apart from the strange questions & answers, both written by her, I’m surprised that she could remember any of it as she didn’t write any notes, and she doesn’t own a camera or a phone.
I feel that I have to reply, to defend all the lovely people that we met.
‘SURVIVING A PRESS TRIP; SANDRA SHEVEY IN BASILICATA’ By Sandra Shevey
Copyright 2013 Sandra Shevey. All rights reserved
Q. So Sandra why Basilicata? It is one of the poorest regions in Italy.
A. That`s what I like about it. I expected to see peasants stamping on grapes, making olive oil from medieval stone presses, rearing sheep and so on
They do make grapes and rear sheep. No, it’s not a poor area. Everyone works. It’s very Italian, and not full of tourists.
Q. And didn’t you?
A. No…the whole place is like a theme park. All the old Dolomite mountain villages run events like ziplining, where you are trussed up and move by gravity above the mountain ranges. They create attractions around religious and historical themes such as The Cave of Original Sin and/or the Barons Revolt (against the King of Aragon)
What utter rubbish! It’s completely unspoilt.
They have one of the highest zipwires in the world, called The Flight of the Angels. And it blends in with the scenery. It’s quite a treck up the hill, but well worth it. I shall never forget flying from mountain to mountain, looking down at the road and the trees, inhaling the smells of the mountain herbs.
Ms Shevey didn’t see it because she didn’t walk up the hill, ‘due to her health’ so Dora had to stay in the village with her.
There aren’t any historical ‘themes.’ The Basilicata region is full of history with many ancient buildings that are open to the public.
Q. What about the shepherds?
A. Shepherds?? There are one or two left in Matera but most are farmers. As a matter of fact it has all become reinvention.The ritual walk from the fields to the mountains where we leave the cattle for the summer is relatively modern- only a few years old. The practice might be ancient but the ritual is modern and vaguely commercial.
As in several other European countries, the cattle are walked up the mountain in the Spring to feed on the lush green grass, and a lot of the local people walk with them. It’s quite a party atmosphere, and has taken place for generations.
For the first time ever, we Journalists were invited to join the walk.
Soon after we set out, Ms Shevey said that she couldn’t walk any more in the sun and needed to go back to Matera – but could she be transported back for the barbecue at midnight?
Our minibus had to return all the way from Matera.
Q. Didn’t you taste any homemade wines and so on?
A. Hardly. The vineyard where we were given a basic meal of local spicy sausage and fresh wheat pasta is owned by a wealthy engineer who produces upwards of 3,000 bottle of red and rose wine.
Good too but hardly bathtub vintage. The guy bought the old monastic vineyard knowing there was a wellspring underneath and felt capable as an engineer of irrigating his crops on that basis.
We were greeted warmly by Rosa and Matteo, the owners of the vineyard.
It was originally a vineyard owned by the Benedictine monks until 1732.
Now they employ around eight local workers when the grapes are ready.
A fox is a regular visitor. He can jump the high fence.
They can’t beat him, so they leave the lowest rows of grapes just for him.
Last year he broke the irrigation pipe to have a drink!
Matteo asked if we were all writers and Ms Shevey replied, ‘Oh no, we’re all Freeloaders!’
We were given an interesting tour of the wine cellars, then we had lunch, which was a delicious spaghetti dish made by Rosa, and nibblies of local cheese, ham, etc accompanied by plenty of wine made in the vineyard, and we finished with local ice-cream, and fruit from their trees.
Q. There is a tremendous variety of fresh farm produce in Basilicata. What were the markets like?
A. I love waking up early and seeing the local markets setting up around 6am. The French markets are wonderful in this way. But there were no local markets in town centres of Matera or Potenza.We found a local market in Potenza on our guided walk but it was tiny and very ritzy. The traders gave you tastes of olive oil and so on. It reminded me of the London Farmers Markets.
We all visited a large fruit & veg market in Matera, selling a wide variety of local produce.
The sights and the smells were gorgeous! I could have taken loads home with me, but didn’t have the weight allowance to put it in my case.
Q. So nothing?
A. There was a bona fide market in the working-class precinct of Matera nearby to the papier-mache factory in this area of Matera. The area seems to attract the local farmers and purveys all kinds of local crops. Wild asparagus was sadly out of season but I bought all kinds of vegetables which still had their leaves and stems and smelled of the earth. These included onions, red peppers,aubergines just picked and fresh apricots..chicory and small artichokes..big figs..wild onions (only in this area..from the field)..spicy red peppers..small cucumbers as well as big round ones which areunique and called `carrotini`.
She didn’t buy anything. She said she had no money.
Dora bought a bag of delicious cherries and shared them with us.
Q. You mention the paper-mache factory. Is this where they make the float for the annual July festival of the Madonna della Bruna?
A. That’s the one. The festival dates back to the 14th century.
The float was built in a factory warehouse. It was top secret and we were lucky to be shown it. We weren’t allowed to take photos – those of us who had cameras that is!
Q. Isn’t this where the festival climaxes when they set upon the float like a pack of wolves?
A. That`s the one. They`re still doing it, except on this occasion they have found a way to make the caricatures appear more lifelike. The papier mache models have been updated with knee joints and other muscular enhancements.
It’s a very religious ceremony and they don’t set upon the float like a pack of wolves. They respectfully break off pieces to keep for luck, and to ward off sickness, etc in the following year.
The workmanship is marvellous! They have now discovered a new way to make the eyes look completely lifelike.
Q. Any surprises?
A. I knew what St. Paul looked like but not St. Peter. The model of St. Peter resembles my Uncle Izzy.He was wearing a yarmulke about which our guide who does the Jewish tours did not seem to know.I kept saying `yarmulke`. I spelled it. And she kept saying, `There`s another word for it`.` Skull cap?No! Another word. I finally gave up.
How does she know what St Paul looked like? She didn’t take his photo!
Ms Shevey kept shouting out words while we were talking to the artists and workers, but none of us knew what she was on about.
Q. A fun trip? A good group?
A. Hardly. It ended the way it began. An ex-airline hostess, currently a journalist, kicked my seat whenever I reclined. It got worse.
As we were in a comfortable, roomy minibus with our bags in front of us containing our notebooks, cameras, water bottles, etc we’d have had to stand up and dance the can-can to kick her seat!
A. She didn’t come along on the Poteniza Red Line Walk where we got to see the Giotto frescoes in the local churches. She said she was feeling unwell but recovered to buy some stuff at the local shops. Actually the shops are great. Expensive but top quality. Basilicata is very middle class.
I eagerly went on every walk, and I never felt unwell,
Am I intelligent? Oh yes!! And I speak Italian.
Q. Any industry?
A. Tourism, film making… The Fiat Factory has opened a plant. But the real explosion is waiting to happen. The Italian national and local governments have signed deals with Shell and Total oil companies to begin in 2016 to commence drilling. Apparently the region is sitting on millions of barrels of oil reserves.
One film was made there recently.
Tourism is quite low-key although one of the purposes of our visit was to increase it.
Q. So we`ll be seeing some spivs real soon?
A. Absolutely. Jett Rinks will be everywhere in fine togs, fancy cars, palazzos in Rome and southern Italy. Our driver lives in depressed conditions at the Sassi. He was in a funk for most of the trip and whinged constantly about emigrating. The whinge has political importance because it is symbolic of all the workers in the area who envy and whose envy will be gratified when the oil rigs start pumping in 2016.
Oh no, I’m not accepting this.
Our driver was part of our group. He was great fun and very informative. He didn’t even complain when he was called out during his free time to transport Ms Shevey back to the hotel.
He loves Matera, and has a good driving job. He has no intention of emigrating anywhere!
Believe me, the people who live in the Basilicata region don’t envy us at all. They have a wonderful life.
(Although the local girls envy us because One Direction lives in the UK!)
A couple of us went out in the evening and the whole town was out, walking around and socialising. All the restaurants were packed, serving a variety of good local Italian food.
We spoke to a lot of them about Matera and their life there.
Q. You mention the Sassi or stone cave dwellings which are now a UNESCO heritage site and which have been inhabited for over 9000 years. Isn’t this where Mel Gibson shot `The Passion of Christ`?
A. Absolutely. The limestone caves and Dolomite mountain terrain seem to replicate the geography and the topography of Jerusalem. History does not account the caves were inhabited by Jews but Jews are noted as living in the area in ancient times. I expect in time their rightful place as custodians of the Sassi will be accounted. Apparently native cave dwellers lived sustainably with the environment and it has only been in relatively recent times when inhabitants desecrated the Sassi that the community deteriorated in areas of health, safety and hygiene. The government undertook a massive campaign to upgrade the housing before allocating again for occupancy. Our driver lives there and is intending to move out. He doesn’t like it.
The whole area of cave dwellings was closed down and are being renovated gradually.
Our driver doesn’t live there. He lives with his family in the modern part of the town.
Q. Is it amazing?
A. Of course but its listed UNESCO status is less for the stone caves than for an enormous seminal cistern which exists underneath. The cistern is an example of engineering genius.
Q. But the Sassi?
A. it is one of the existing wonders of the world. Of course, nowadays you have five-star hotels and posh restaurants within the precincts. When Mel Gibson directed his film he had to remove signs,boards and a lot of modern stuff which interfered. None of this was present when Pasolini shot his film years before.
Q. How is Gibson remembered?
A. He took communion in his hotel room every morning but was aloof with the locals. Perhaps he felt they were going to play out Madonna della Bruna and tear him apart.He had the Sassi set walled off. There is nothing left from the film. The locals wanted the Gates to Jerusalem to remain but no.
Q. Where did he stay? The Palazzo Gattini?
A. The Palazzo Gattini wasn’t converted yet into a hotel. Gibson stayed in a business style hotel. He got the management to create a suite by knocking through a wall but then rarely if ever used it.Gibson kept himself apart from the locals. He took communion in his room. He seldom went to the Cathedral on the hill overlooking the Sassi and the town. On the one occasion when he did venture out he leaped into his limo after the service and before the crowds could gather.
Q. Anyone meet him?
A. A relative of our guide Dora was his priest. She told me that Gibson was `Catholic Methodist`meaning that he is highly fundamental in his beliefs. She says one of his daughters intends to become a nun.
Q. What about the food?
A. Good, but we didn’t get the good stuff. We ate mostly salami and cheese. I got very constipated.Again because big money via oil is on the horizon they make a big deal about peasant origins. We actually got fed a dog`s dinner on one occasion. Well, not exactly, but it was bread salad saturated in olive oil.A freelance I have known what it is to be poor and to thicken tomato sauce and salads with bread.This is not to say I make a big deal or serve it to friends whom I invite for a meal.We also ate off tupperware which I found insulting.
We had excellent food everywhere. I know because I’m a Food & Travel Writer, with a long history in the catering trade.
We didn’t eat mostly salami and cheese.
A dog’s dinner? Hasn’t she heard of Italian bread salads?
Tupperware? Words fail me!
Q. What was it like staying at the Palazzo Gattini- a five star hotel? Did you have a five-star pee?
A. Beautiful restored fresco ceilings but no face cloths. Tea bags instead of real tea for breakfast.
The hotel’s fantastic, a very high standard throughout, and the staff are lovely and attentive.
Q. So on a scale of one to five how would you rate the area?
A. Three stars. Firstly, I disdain their contempt for sustainability by the introduction of the oil rigs. Two, I resent the envy which has driven out small producers and shepherds and three I dismay on account of the cruel religiosity and festivals which pass on the same filthy prejudices. They take Jewish heritage for granted, ascribing it to Christian tradition. This is a fundamental error and a misrepresentation.
I don’t need to comment on prejudice and bigotry, do I?
There are successful small producers and farmers everywhere.
The festivals are traditional, religious and fun!
Make your own decisions, Dear Readers!
Sandra Shevey writes about destinations, accepts commissions, does pr and runs tours. She can becontacted at Sandra_shevey@yahoo.com (all lower case including `S`andra)
A. www.visitbasilicata.nl Sandra_shevey@yahoo.com
B. It’s a shame that I’ve had to write this, but a lot of people have been upset, and her behaviour reflects on all of us.
C. We were staying in a 5-star palace at the top of the hill, with wonderful views. Basilicata is unique, even in Italy, and well worth a visit. The weather’s hot for most of the year, but cold in the winter, the food’s all local and bursting with flavour, the history is fascinating, and you’ll be welcomed wherever you go!